Mobile messaging apps are going to dominate the web. They're already bigger than social networks, and the falling prices of mobile devices and mobile data means their growth isn't going to slow down anytime soon.
The leading messaging apps already have hundreds of millions of monthly active users and allow their customers to do much more than just exchange messages. Gradually, users are beginning to use chatting apps to connect with brands and shop for products and services. Apps like WeChat and Line are starting to monetize their user base, showing the commercial promise of chat.
Messaging apps have the tough job of not just convincing individuals to use the product, but also convincing individuals to get all their friends chatting too. While all apps are easy to use, there's often a lot of friction in getting set up—from downloading the app to getting through all the legal points. Since most people already know how to chat, user onboarding doesn't need to teach them on how to use the core functionality of the app, but instead reduce sign-up friction and build excitement.
When done right, it can be powerful in getting users ramped up and ready to spread the word to their friends.
In this article, we look at how five of the most popular instant messaging apps onboard users to engage and retain them.
After gaining popularity in Japan, Line started seeking international expansion with the view of going public. Although Line had reached over 700 million total users in 2015, there were concerns that its growth had already peaked when the app was preparing to go public in 2016.
How Line onboards users
- Line has a product tour, but it can be skipped at any time: The app educates its inexperienced users, but allows those who know their way around to skip the tour, thus lowering friction.
- Facebook signup makes it easy to add your information: It can pull your name and picture, thus saving you a couple of steps toward creating your profile and adopting the app into your daily life. This step also benefits Line by giving it access to additional information about users.
- Options to add friends and to allow others to add you are pre-selected: Line's success depends on getting you to add friends and chatting to as many people as possible. The app promotes the desired behavior by taking advantage of the so-called status quo bias—it knows that you're more likely to stick with pre-selected options than change them to something else.
Facebook wants to leverage its crushing lead in social media to become the preferred instant messaging tool.
The goal for Messenger is to be a platform where people can build and integrate apps. Facebook Messenger needs a large user base to get more developers using its open API. It also wants to be a place for individuals to connect with brands. Messenger users can already order an Uber from the app.
How Facebook Messenger onboards users
- You can sign up with or without a Facebook account: Facebook wants to make Messenger a standalone product.
- The app puts value first: It takes great care when explaining why it needs to verify your number, have access to your contact list, etc.
- You can't skip the step of importing contacts: This is somewhat risky, as it might result in shooing away some users, but the step is crucial to Messenger's success.
- Messenger wants to take over your text messages: Clearly, it wants to be the go-to app for every type of message—from chatting to your Facebook friends to texting your family on your way home from work.
WhatsApp is one of the apps that has defied all sorts of expectations—it has done many things contrary to what common sense in mobile design dictates and has managed to build a formidable user base leading to a record acquisition by Facebook.
However, WhatsApp's user onboarding flow is very conventional, taking just the appropriate steps to guide users to the value it has to offer.
How WhatsApp onboards users
- Well-designed legal opt-in: WhatsApp doesn't overwhelm users with legalese and technical language on the first screen.
- Strong value-driven explanation for why it needs access: At every step, the app does an excellent job of explaining why it needs access to users' contacts, photos, and SMS. The copy on the modal windows describes the action as benefits users can gain by approving each step.
- WhatsApp uses SMS as a way to simplify phone verification: Not only does SMS simplify the verification process, but the automatic detection of the SMS by the app saves users the nuisance of having to dig through their phone messages. The automation of this step, moreover, ensures that users never have to leave the app during onboarding, thus minimizing the chances that they get distracted by something else on their phone and never come back to complete their signup.
- Well-designed options to re-send the SMS or verify through a call: They don't get in the way unless you need them. The countdown timer next to each option also gives you a subtle indication of how long it may take to receive your original code.
Viber often flies under the radar, but the app has an impressive user base that stands at over 800 million users. In addition to connecting users with brands, Viber also offers fan-driven Public Accounts and a nifty “Secret Chat” functionality. The company was acquiredby Japanese ecommerce giant Rakuten for $900 million in 2014.
How Viber onboards users
- All permissions requests are grouped upfront: This risks overwhelming users with too big an ask before they've seen any value from the app. However, once the app gets passed this hurdle, the onboarding is much easier for users.
- Phone verification process is straightforward: Every screen makes it very clear what should happen next, and whether the user has to do anything or not.
- Once you've created your profile, Viber suggests four friends who're already using the app: Research has shown we can perceive up to four objects at the same time. Viber takes advantage of this finding by showing users limited options to increase the chances that they start using the app.
WeChat is perhaps the most successful example of an instant messaging app and one that many other brands, including giants like Facebook, are looking to replicate. WeChat is not only successful in picking up users—the app is closing on 1 billion monthly active users—but also in allowing users to complete purchases offline through their WeChat account. As a result, over 200 million people use WeChat to shop online and in physical stores, pushing the average revenue per user for the app above $7.
How WeChat onboards users
- Instructions come in a message: Not the perfect tactic for onboarding users—mostly because the messages are too lengthy—but the format educates users about the product in a practical way. When users have a message waiting when they first log in, they can immediately start using WeChat.
- Find someone to chat to right away: After registration, a tooltip drives users to add their friends. WeChat users can also search for people nearby. Users can also physically shake their phone to get paired with other users looking for a chat buddy at that moment.
- Start using WeChat immediately: By allowing users to connect with others right away, even if they happen to have no friends on the app yet, WeChat lowers the possibility that users abandon the app before discovering the value it can create for them.
Retention starts with onboarding
In instant messaging apps, the onboarding flow has to achieve two primary goals:
- Help users discover the value of the app as quickly as possible
- Get them to add as many of their friends as possible so they can start chatting
Apps that get their users to complete these steps create strong network effects. This is important for messaging apps, given the existence of multiple alternatives and virtually no switching costs.
When you create a large enough network, users will find it very difficult to abandon the app that all their friends are using. A good onboarding experience can get users hooked sooner rather than later and expedite the network effect.